Lucius Annaeus Seneca was a Hispano-Roman Stoic philosopher. Seneca was born in southern Spain over 2,00 years ago, and was raised in Rome. His exposure to the Stoic way came by the way of Attalus – a Stoic philosopher who played the role as Seneca’s early teacher. Seneca’s interest in philosophy did not exclusively reside in the bounds of Stoicism – he borrowed and studied liberally from other schools of thought.
Seneca had both a poignant and profound relationship to philosophy, both in the way he approached and presented it. Seneca utilised philosophy as a means to handle and navigate through the peaks and valleys of fortune that life inevitably presents. Seneca truly embodied and preached the silver lining principle.
Most of what we have today of Seneca’s writing is derived from his letters to his friends and family. Of worthy note are two titles:
On the shortness of life
Letters from a Stoic
These works explore themes such as death, impermanence, happiness, wealth and meaning. Seneca (as with other Stoic writers) was no stranger to the non-renewable nature of our most precious and valuable resource: time.
“We are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not Ill-supplied but wasteful of it.”
Personally, Seneca is perhaps my favourite of the popular Stoic Philosophers.
Seneca stressed the importance on finding a role model from which one may be provided a standard of life to live by. Seneca viewed this position as a necessary element in the pursuit of a deep, rich, meaningful life. By modelling elements of ones life against a principled, disciplined example, we may find ourselves striving for a life we only dare to dream of. Seneca puts this instruction as:
“Choose someone whose way of life as well as words, and whose very face as mirroring the character that lies behind it, have won your approval. Be always pointing him out to yourself either as your guardian or as your model. There is a need, in my view, for someone as a standard against which our characters can measure themselves. Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make crooked straight.”
Seneca, surprisingly to some, was a significantly wealthy man – especially when contrasted to other Stoic philosophers (of special note was the slave philosopher Epictetus). This put Seneca in a powerfully unique position to speak of wealth from a learned and lived position. As such, Seneca knew all too well of the dangers that wealth provides – especially in the form of attachment; becoming a slave to ones fortune. Seneca mastered his wealth, and consciously utilised and controlled it – not the other way around. Seneca instructed to closely examine our relationship with our fortune (possessions) and used our fear of losing it as a measure of its grip on us. As he put it:
“For the wise man does not consider himself unworthy of any gifts from Fortune’s hands: he does not love wealth but he would rather have it; he does not admit into his heart but into his home; and what wealth is his he does not reject but keeps, wishing it to supply greater scope for him to practice his virtue.”
He goes on to sum it up in a more succinct way:
“For the wise man regards wealth as a slave, the fool as a master.”
The hidden hindrance.
Paralleling many schools of philosophical and religious thought, Seneca had a deep understanding of the ego, and the frequent barriers it imposed on us in terms of our dreams, aspirations and development. He especially highlighted complacency, and our unwillingness to look at ourselves soberly – those dark parts of ourselves that we would rather not show onus to.
“The chief obstacle is that we are quick to be satisfied with ourselves. If we find someone to call us good men, cautious and principled, we acknowledge him. We are not content with a moderate eulogy, but accept as our due whatever flattery has shamelessly heaped upon us. We agree with those who call us best and wisest, although we know they often utter many falsehoods: we indulge ourselves so greatly that we want to be praised for a virtue which is the opposite of our behaviour. A man hears himself called ‘most merciful’ while he is inflicting torture. So it follows that we don’t want to change because we believe we are already excellent.”
Seneca sought wisdom and philosophy from numerous schools of thought.
I will leave this post with a few quotes from Seneca that I hope will leave you feeling inspired and inquisitive.
True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so, wants nothing. Begin at once to live, and count each separate day as a separate life. Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labour does the body. We suffer more often in imagination than in reality. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.
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